Push For Electric Vehicles Predicted To Continue In Wisconsin Amid Questions

Jan 21, 2020

The transportation sector — that's people driving gasoline-fueled cars and using other vehicles — has become the single largest source of carbon dioxide pollution in the United States. So, despite some setbacks and concerns in Wisconsin, the push for more electric vehicles is expected to continue in 2020.

There are now more than 1 million electric vehicles (EV) on U.S. roads. California is leading the way. In Wisconsin, the percentage of drivers using EV is still less than 1%. But it's a dedicated group. 

Teng Yang of West Allis has a 2017 Chevy Volt. The car can go about 50 miles on its electric battery but also has a gas-powered engine for longer trips. Yang says more people driving electric would be a positive thing.

"The more electric cars that we have out there, the less gas and oil we'll have to burn, which would be good for the environment. But it will also be good for people's pocketbooks because they won't have to be getting gas all the time," Yeng told WUWM.

Tesla makes electric cars, like this one shown here.
Credit Chuck Quirmbach

READ: Upper Midwest Would Gain Most Health Benefits By Cutting Coal, Adding Renewables, Study Shows

Of course, many EV drivers recharge their vehicles with carbon-based electricity — power coming from a coal or natural gas-fired plant. The carbon dioxide released contributes to climate change. But the power plants are subject to emissions controls. Plus, there will soon be more solar panels and possibly wind turbines generating cleaner, renewable energy in Wisconsin. 

But that still won't solve the problem of the lack of EV charging stations, especially more expensive ones allowing a faster recharge. 

Last fall, the Public Service Commission of Wisconsin rejected a proposal by Milwaukee-based We Energies to offer customers a rebate for installing chargers in their homes. But other Wisconsin utilities are pressing ahead. Xcel Energy in western Wisconsin is asking the PSC to OK a plan to have the utility put chargers in the homes of willing residential customers and offer a rate structure to encourage charging at night, which is cheaper.

READ: Wisconsin Electric Vehicle Owners Make A Plug For More Charging Stations

The customers could pay the utility back for the chargers over time, reducing up-front costs. Xcel's Deb Erwin says she hopes only having the users pay wins over the commissioners. 

"Regulators are concerned about being fair to all customers and making sure those benefitting are the ones paying for the infrastructure is really important. So, I think our proposal addresses that," Erwin said.

Studies show that utilities that help with charging stations wind up making more money in electricity sales. The PSC may decide the Xcel case this spring. 

An all-electric Nissan Leaf being charged in a garage in Wauwatosa.
Credit Chuck Quirmbach

Others with an interest in EV have ideas that would apply to the whole state but may take a while.  Milwaukee attorney and energy lobbyist Matthew McGovern says perhaps Wisconsin will someday have a state Legislature that would approve financial incentives for consumers purchasing electric vehicles.

"You know, there are elections. The Legislature changes. There's going to be redistricting in 2021. So, who knows what it could look like after that?" McGovern said last week at a renewable energy forum in Madison.

Meanwhile, McGovern says a few members of the current GOP-controlled Legislature are introducing bills favorable to EV charging.  

McGovern also notes that some electric buses are coming to Milwaukee County, the PSC is taking an extended look at EV in Wisconsin, and a climate change task force appointed by Gov. Tony Evers may make additional recommendations.

But Robert Fischer, a Madison-based technology and policy adviser, says there's another side to the EV discussion — all the mining for lithium to make rechargeable batteries, and the way some EVs are manufactured.

"There's little debate that the production of an electric vehicle consumes more energy and contributes more to climate change than a standard diesel car or petro-based car," Fischer said.

Fischer says it can take years of actually operating the EV for them to save on air pollution compared to traditional vehicles. So, he says a challenge is to reduce that amount of time, by getting more EV recharged with cleaner, renewable energy. It could be a big test, as several analysts predict steady growth in the cars over the next 20 years.

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